I recently played a live set at StereoBar in Montreal for the launch of my album Returning Home and it was very interesting to create a live set from scratch, following the advice of this series I’ve written over the past few months about playing electronic music live. I’d like to share with you a bit about how it went, as well as some personal notes I took for future performances.
Notes about preparation of my set
Returning Home has many tracks; I wasn’t sure how I’d approach them in a live context considering they are all pretty intricate, full of details, and pretty much impossible to execute as the recorded version(s). I decided to go through all the songs and export the stems for each group of sounds – plus making sure the kick and bass would be isolated – so I could control how they would come and go in the set.
Exporting stems took me a while. I had also exported stems from certain songs that weren’t included in the album but that I wanted to play. I had a good 17 tracks ready, with about 8 channels exported per track. I imported everything into my new live set, and added everything in the right columns and with the colors I needed. I also started chopping the stems into sections so I could trigger some parts spontaneously.
After a few days of geeking out, I started playing the tracks to see how the flow felt and to see if the transitions were going well. I played with effects; trying to spice up the main ideas to surprise people. As I kept rehearsing and trying to see how to play the songs, I found myself becoming very bored out of what I was hearing. The thing is, when you spent months making an album, you get to a point where you can’t listen to your own music anymore – and playing it as is felt too safe, too simple.
I scrapped everything. I remember thinking that this whole series advising people on how to play live was crap but I realized that after going through it myself again, it still had a lot of value, but even I had done the preparations wrong. I remembered then how I used to LOVE playing live, 15 years ago and had a flashback excited me: pure improvisation. I realized that using stems wasn’t improvising enough and that my music is in itself, pure chaos.
I went back to my pool of sounds which didn’t make the cut originally and started chopping sounds, deconstructing stems, and re-exporting new parts. Then I started creating a space where I could remix the whole album on the spot, plus adding unexpected, unused sounds. Basically, it was combining the bass of track 2 with the melody of track 7, then percussion of track 4…pure remixing. I found a core idea for each moment of my set, and left a lot of space for reinterpretation. It worked and I was having a lot of fun.
My setup for this Set
I was using Ableton Push and 2 Novation Launch XLs, as mixers for all the channels (I ended up using 10). For some reason, each time I’ve tried using PUSH live, it has never really helped, but I felt this time I wanted to use it. I love the Novations so using 2 felt really amazing.
Limitations: My Macbook pro only has 2 USB ports so I needed a port to accommodate multiple items.
Arriving at the venue, I felt really confident; perhaps too confident. The soundcheck went so smoothly that – in my experience – when that happens it gives you the feeling that something will go wrong later.
I had spent time in the studio carefully tweaking each channel with EQs to make sure the sound wasn’t to harsh or piercing. I also decided to use a Manley compression from UAD on the master which made everything really smooth. It was important to use a reference track as an EQ curve. It really paid off in Soundcheck so I didn’t have to do much; everything went so smooth.
TIP: Listen to your reference track before soundchecking, then play it to adjust an EQ on the master.
After a great start, shit started to hit the fan. As a track was playing, I noticed my mixer wasn’t responding and realized it had rebooted. By rebooting, it made the second mixer crash and the PUSH too. I wasn’t even 5 minutes in and the wheel of death was spinning on my Mac. I waited patiently and luckily it went back to normal. But after this glitch, I disconnected one of the Novations to plug it directly in my computer instead of the USB-Hub I had bought the same day (cheap connectors are always a big mistake!). PUSH was frozen and not doing anything, I had to activate clips with my mouse. Luckily from my experience playing live for so many years, I was able to do this in a way so that people didn’t notice. The Novations kept crashing one after the other. Each time I had to unplug them patiently to restart them, and then the wheel would go off on my computer; for some reason they would work for a good 20 minutes but then crash again.
Luckily, no one noticed anything! I could have really played a great show that night if everything had worked properly because Stereobar has the perfect setup for me…it was a bit disappointing, but I still received a lot of good feedback.
After the show
Despite the technical issues, it was great show and fun nonetheless.
To summarize, a few tips here based on this live experience:
- Don’t buy gear the same day without testing. Soundcheck are never 100% of what a show will be and can never be a real test.
- Deactivate Ableton Live’s auto-update feature. It actually upgraded to a version the day before with a bug in it – a pretty big one. I had to reinstall the software and that was stressful. Thanks for the swift reply from Ableton tech support on that one.
- Never panic when problems arise. Most of the time, people don’t notice.
- Try to avoid shitty USB hubs! I’m still trying to find a better alternative.
I hope this series was helpful!